What local voluntary infrastructure organisations fantasise about

I pitched and ran a session at the wonderful VCSSCamp yesterday. It was my second ever 'unconference' (read about my first here), and in case you don't know what an unconference is, it's a conference without an agenda, at least initially. The participants 'pitch' sessions and other participants hopefully come along. VCSSCamp is organised (or should that be unorganised) primarily for voluntary sector infrastructure organisations such as CVSs and Volunteer Centres, and all of the 40-50 who attended were interested in using digital technology to improve what they do.

I pitched a session for the final slot of the day with a pitch that went something like "Let's all have a chat about our fantasies - what tech solutions we would love to bring to life, if we had unlimited resources. For instance if we had a roomful of developers waiting to develop anything we wanted, what would we get them to develop?"

Here's what happened.

Our fantasies started small, but grew throughout the session as participants really got into it! We ended up not talking about the tech, but about the underlying problems we would love to solve and how the sector might be better. Which of course is the correct approach: Always start with the user needs rather than the tech solution!

Fantasy #1 - I wish the Do-It website was better!

What started as essentially a popular moan about current frustrations with the existing Do-It website (too fiddly) turned later into a more creative riff.

"Why can't websites like Do-It which try to get people interested in volunteering be much more interactive and engaging?", one of the participants asked. On the current Do-It website someone has to engage with their search function to find volunteering opportunities, and then it brings up lots and they just get overwhelmed, and leave it to another time.

What if you could chat with Do-It with a chatbot (using natural speech rather than typing) and what if it guided you to the best suggestions for you? Getting even more inventive, Pottermore, the Harry Potter website, was mentioned. It takes you through a fun "Sorting Hat" quiz to sort you into your Hogwarts House (and if you haven't tried it, I thoroughly recommend it - I'm in Ravenclaw!). Why couldn't something similar (and fun) sort you into your "volunteering type" and present tailored suggestions based on that? I love this idea, and it wouldn't be too difficult.

Fantasy #2 - All services could be mapped

What if location-based postcode searches could drive users' discovery of services? There are loads of local directories but most of them don't map in a visual way (although some do). What if this was achievable on a national basis?

A couple of us had heard about Ododow.org, a project encouraging charitable projects to literally "put themselves on the map", but we weren't sure exactly what that achieved beyond a nice map with a small amount of proprietary metadata.

Ideally, data standards are needed for the voluntary sector in order to collect consistent (and open) data about each organisation and allow multiple apps to be developed on top of the data to really add value. We thought that perhaps data could be crowdsourced nationally rather than sourced directly from the organisations, but that it was important that the resulting data needed to be open, rather than building up a database of proprietary data.

Fantasy #3 - Develop the Uber disruptive model for the voluntary sector

One of the participants asked, What would it mean to be really disruptive in this sector - like Uber or AirBnB for instance?.

What these companies have in common is that they're stripping away all the intermediate infrastructure that sits between individuals simply helping individuals. Uber allows a driver to provide a service to someone who wants to get somewhere, and AirBnB enables individuals to rent out their homes to other individuals. Both operate on a lean model, with hardly any infrastructure, just technology enabling a direct connection between individuals.

What if the voluntary sector was more like this? What if we got rid of a lot of the inefficient and expensive "organisations" that get in between individuals simply giving help and support to individuals? What if the infrastructure we provided was lean and facilitative, and simply connected people?

Wow - there's a lot to think about here.

Fantasy #4 - Design services for end users, not for us and our egos

This relates closely to the previous point. Too many voluntary sector organisations are designed around what works for the founders, the trustees, the organisers, rather than what works best for their end users.

I shared an example (which I've previously blogged about) of how there are 13 good neighbour schemes in Woking alone, all of which run a phone line which is manned to some extent every weekday. Quite apart from being incredibly inefficient, this is also bad for the service users. How do they know which number to ring to get help and support? There are 13 different numbers and they are not well advertised.

If we were designing this service from the end user's point of view, one would start with an easy-to-remember phone number which everyone knew about and which could be easily advertised.

I'm not accusing these Woking-based services of being ego-driven, but the idea of "little empires" driven by egos was certainly cited by participants as a reason why sub-scale organisations continue to exist, when it might make so much sense to merge with other organisations to provide a better service, if the end user came first.

Fantasy #5 - A VCS Forum where everyone can talk to each other and share learnings

Participants agreed that infrastructure organisations simply don't talk enough to each other and share their learnings. Why? Partly because of "the ego problem", or because of fear of being shown up to be lacking, or just "being precious". As a result there is variable quality in the services provided by organisations, and much time wasted "reinventing the wheel".

A forum for discussion and information sharing should be a quick technology win for the sector. Indeed the Slack channel being set up by VCSSCamp will provide one form of solution to this. The question is perhaps not a tech question, but a human question of whether the right people will use it!

Fantasy #6 - Everyone should avoid duplication!

Following on from previous points about not wanting to "reinvent the wheel", there were strong suggestions about how new projects should be forced to check whether something similar already exists (someone should build HasAnyoneDoneThisBefore.com), before they get funded. Particularly when public money is being used to fund a project, if something identical exists, the project should be forced to consider collaboration or explain why it is necessary or different. In fact, perhaps funders should have a duty to do their research and check this out.

There was some discussion about whether identical projects really should be allowed to exist. In my view sometimes this is OK since no two projects are ever completely identical (they'll always be in different places and run by different people), and therefore could get different results, but I could feel the frustration in the room at too many similar projects or ventures overlapping with each other when collaboration would be more likely to lead to success, and precious funding could be spent much more effectively.

Fantasy #7 - Improve the information flow between groups

Participants reported that there's often a serious lack of knowledge among the organisations they support about "what else is out there", even in the same neighbourhood. Often it is a revelation to discover that two similar organisations less than a mile away from each other have never heard of each other!

There's a tendency towards groups having a blinkered approach to just delivering a service, or doing what they do, without a wider awareness of what else is going on even in their own neighbourhood. This could be solved by more networking (something that doesn't happen enough between local groups), or perhaps facilitated by technology if it could improve the information flow.

This is something I'm personally passionate about - and I hope interests.me will help use email to improve the information flow between groups so that they share information across a community and can spot opportunities to work together, avoid clashing with each other and too much overlap, and help each other to promote themselves.

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